Vietnam War, U.S. Air Operations in The

views updated May 18 2018

Vietnam War, U.S. Air Operations in The. During the Vietnam War, airpower commanded more American resources than any other aspect of the struggle. More than half of the hundreds of billions of dollars America invested in the war was devoted to U.S. Air Force, Army, and Navy air operations. The United States dropped over 8 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1962 to 1973 and lost over 8,588 fixed‐wing aircraft and helicopters. U.S. military air crew losses totaled 4,302 by 1973. For all this investment, airpower, while occasionally influential, was never decisive.

The U.S. Air Force dates its involvement in Vietnam to the summer of 1950, when it sent advisers to help France maintain and operate U.S.‐manufactured aircraft in the war with the Viet Minh. After the Viet Minh victory and the partitioning of the country into North and South in 1955, America continued sending air advisers to Vietnam. By 1961, six South Vietnamese squadrons were ready for combat, supported by an American combat training detachment known as “Farm Gate.” The boundary between fighting and training for U.S. Air Force personnel during the early 1960s was never clearly defined. The Farm Gate commandos believed they were primarily to fly close air support missions for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), but their official rules of engagement precluded them from engaging in combat without a member of the South Vietnamese Air Force in the aircraft or in self‐defense.

By the end of 1962, more than 3,000 U.S. Air Force advisers were serving in Vietnam. American pilots flew air support and reconnaissance missions; they also transported ARVN troops around the country, and defoliated jungle areas with C‐123 “Ranch Hand” aircraft. During the latter program, which lasted over ten years, the air force sprayed 19.22 million gallons of herbicides and defoliants over approximately 5.96 million acres of the country.

After the Tonkin Gulf incidents in August 1964 and a surprise Viet Cong sapper attack on the U.S. air base at Bien Hoa in November, President Lyndon B. Johnson slowly began to raise the intensity of the air war. He initiated Operation Barrel Roll, a series of interdiction missions flown along the infiltration routes developing in the Laotian panhandle. When the Viet Cong attacked a second air base at Pleiku in February 1965, Johnson retaliated with raids against targets just north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Initially known as Flaming Dart, these reprisal missions evolved into a sustained air campaign, Operation Rolling Thunder, beginning in March 1965.

Rolling Thunder was the longest air campaign in American military history. Between March 1965 and November 1968, navy, air force, and Marine aviation flew 2 million sorties and dropped 1 million tons of bombs on North Vietnam. Rolling Thunder had several objectives. One was to persuade Hanoi to abandon its support of the southern insurgency; another was to raise the morale of military and political elites in South Vietnam; and the third was interdiction—strikes against logistics targets such as bridges, roads, and railroads designed to reduce Hanoi's ability to support the war in the South.

Though Rolling Thunder attacked strategic targets such as electric plants and fuel storage facilities, the limited number of these targets and restrictions against bombing near Hanoi, Haiphong, and the Chinese border made interdiction its prime focus. Throughout the campaign, American pilots clamored to “go downtown” (bomb Hanoi), but President Johnson, who approved and sometimes picked the targets, constantly turned down these requests. He believed the threat of more intensive destruction implicit in limited, incremental bombing would have a greater impact on Hanoi's willingness to negotiate than an all‐out terror offensive. He also believed that this gradualist approach would stave off possible Chinese intervention.

For pilots, the most frustrating aspect of the bombing restrictions was that most North Vietnamese fighter bases and surface‐to‐air missile (SAM) batteries fell within restricted areas. To cope with these defenses, the services developed elaborate “strike packages” consisting of fighter‐bombers, fighter escorts, electronic warfare aircraft, search and rescue planes, and airborne command and control aircraft. Yet North Vietnamese air defenses claimed over 900 American aircraft during Rolling Thunder. Most of these aircraft were downed by simple 23–100 mm antiaircraft artillery. The North used high‐altitude SAMs to compel American aircraft to fly low, thereby bringing them within range of their guns. Russian‐built MiGs were used sparingly, generally making just one pass before retreating home. These “guerilla” tactics yielded meager results: only seventy‐six planes shot down during the war, or about 7 percent of U.S. fixed‐wing losses over the North. On the other hand, such caution made the U.S. kill ratio just 2.5 to 1 from 1965 to 1973; consequently only five Americans qualified as aces (with five or more “kills”).

Overall, Rolling Thunder failed to accomplish its major objectives. Although the bombing caused an estimated $600 million worth of damage to North Vietnam, it did not prevent the Communist forces from launching the Tet Offensive in 1968, nor did it bring about a negotiated peace settlement.

Most histories of the air war focus on the bombing of North Vietnam; yet the United States dropped far more tonnage in the South over the course of the war. By 1973, the year of U.S. withdrawal, the “in‐country” war claimed 4 million tons. By contrast, only 1 million tons had been dropped on North Vietnam. To begin this effort, 21,000 air force personnel and 500 aircraft were deployed to South Vietnam in 1965.

The impetus behind this massive buildup was close air support. These missions were generally flown by small fighters like the F‐100 Supersabre, but beginning in June 1965, B‐52s (U.S. strategic bombers) being flown from Guam were used as well. By the end of the war, 75 percent of all B‐52 “Arc Light” strikes had flown against targets in South Vietnam, 20 percent to Laos, and 5 percent against the North. During the siege of Khe Sanh, B‐52s dropped 60,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnamese positions just outside the Marine base. This joint operation, dubbed Niagara, is generally credited with compelling the North Vietnamese to lift their siege of the beleaguered outpost.

Besides close air support, B‐52s also flew interdiction missions in Cambodia and Laos during 1968–72. President Richard M. Nixon employed B‐52s to pulverize supply storage areas along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia. Beginning on March 1969, these secret “Menu” bombings in Cambodia lasted 14 months, during which B‐52s flew 3,630 sorties into Cambodia and dropped 100,000 tons of bombs. In Laos, B‐52s created landslides in mountain passes vital to Ho Chi Minh's logistical system. These missions fell under the rubric of Operation Commando Hunt, an interdiction campaign that lasted from November 1968 to April 1972.

The many exotic weapons used during Commando Hunt included an elaborate sensor system known as Igloo White, antipersonnel mines, and AC‐130 Specter gunships. B‐52s established blocking belts by creating landslides and sewing roads with mines. After mines were laid and major passes blocked, air force planners would send in Specter gunships to blast resulting traffic bottlenecks with their 20‐ and 40mm cannons and 105mm howitzers. The Specters even located trucks and personnel at night, using low‐light television cameras and infrared heat‐seeking technology.

For all its wizardry, Commando Hunt had little impact upon the Communist ability to wage war. In fact, the North launched its biggest offensive to date in 1972, with over 120,000 regulars and 200 armored vehicles. President Nixon responded to this Easter Offensive by launching a new wave of air attacks against North Vietnam. The resulting Linebacker I raids were designed to hinder the North Vietnamese invasion of the South by destroying its petroleum storage facilities, power‐generating plants, and major bridges. This campaign became a watershed in airpower history because it was the first to place heavy reliance on precision‐guided munitions. Laser‐ and television‐guided bombs enabled small numbers of aircraft to destroy heavily defended targets from extreme distances. By the end of June, the air force and navy had demolished or damaged 400 bridges in North Vietnam, including ones, such as the Paul Doumer Bridge, Hanoi, that had been bombed repeatedly earlier to no effect.

In October 1972, peace seemed close at hand and Nixon halted the bombing of the North. Le Duc Tho, the North's chief negotiator, had presented substantially new terms and a settlement seemed imminent. However, South Vietnamese demands for changes stalled the talks. By early December, agreement was in shambles, and Nixon launched a second series of Linebacker attacks. Known as the “Christmas bombings,” the eleven‐day Linebacker II campaign in late December was the most intense air assault of the war. Tactical aircraft flew more than 1,000 sorties and B‐52s about 740 against targets in the heart of Hanoi and Haiphong. The North Vietnamese fought back with everything available and destroyed twenty‐seven American aircraft, including eighteen B‐52s; but by the end of the campaign, Hanoi had expended its entire supply of antiaircraft missiles and B‐52s could fly over the North Vietnamese cities with impunity.

The eleven‐day air campaign and its impact upon the peace negotiations is still a point of controversy in Vietnam War historiography. “Revisionist” histories of the war, mostly written by participants, argue that such a campaign early in the struggle could have yielded an American victory. Recently, a second group of historians has challenged this conventional wisdom. Mark Clodfelter (1989) argues that the Linebacker campaigns “worked” in 1972 because Nixon's political goals were limited to securing an American withdrawal and a cease‐fire. Moreover, the nature of the ground war in 1972 was conventional. Such an approach, maintains Clodfelter, could not have been replicated earlier on during the guerrilla struggle, when America's goal was to defeat a popular insurgency in the South. Earl H. Tilford (1991) takes the argument a step further. He contends that, in the final analysis, “it was the Air Force and Navy's very own leaders that failed to develop a strategy appropriate for the war at hand.” Could any air strategy, though, have won the conflict? Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Maxwell Taylor's response in 1975 was an unequivocal no. According to him, “we didn't know our ally. Secondly, we knew even less about the enemy. And the last, most inexcusable of our mistakes, was not knowing our own people.”
[See also Army Combat Branches: Aviation; Bombing of Civilians; Marine Corps Combat Branches: Aviation Forces; Vietnam War: Military and Diplomatic Course; Vietnam War: Changing Interpretations.]


Ulysses S. Grant Sharp , Strategy for Defeat: Vietnam in Retrospect, 1978.
Robert F. Futrell , The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The Advisory Years to 1965, 1981.
John B. Nichols and and Barrett Tilman , On Yankee Station: The Naval Air War Over Vietnam, 1987.
John Schlight , The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: The Years of Offensive, 1965–1968, 1988.
Earl H. Tilford , Setup: What the Air Force Did in Vietnam and Why, 1991.
Mark Clodfelter , The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam, 1989.
Kenneth H. Bell , 100 Missions North, 1993.
John Trotti , Phantom Over Vietnam: Fighter Pilot, USMC, 1993.
Marshall L. Michel III , Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam 1965–1972, 1997.

John Darrell Sherwood

World War II, U.S. Air Operations in: The Air War in Europe

views updated May 18 2018

World War II, U.S. Air Operations in: The Air War in Europe. U.S. air operations in the Mediterranean and Europe evolved into two distinct fields of effort: the strategic air campaign against the German war economy and the tactical air support of American ground forces. In both arenas the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF) began hostilities with untested doctrine. In the strategic sphere, the AAF believed that it could attack and destroy German war industries, with accuracy and in daylight, without the benefit of friendly fighter escort, while suffering acceptable losses. In the tactical sphere, using methods based on British combat experience in 1940–41, Field Manual 35‐31 laid out a scheme for the command and control of tactical air power that usually placed airmen in control of their own forces.

U.S. Tactical Air Operations in Europe.

Tactical air power requires the cooperation and understanding of two combat arms, each with a unique perspective on ground operations. The United States' initial ground campaign in Tunisia demonstrated the difficulties inherent in orchestrating ground and air efforts. At the outset neither ground nor air understood the U.S. Army's air support doctrine, but both were forced, unprepared, into combat. As a result, “teething” problems, such as lack of radar for early warning and excessive fear by ground units of air attack, hampered cooperation. In mid‐February 1943, the placement of all Anglo‐American tactical air power under the command of an experienced air officer, Air Marshal Arthur T. Connignham of the British Royal Air Force (RAF), coincided with air reinforcements and the solution of air logistics problems. By the campaign's end, tactical air power had contributed greatly to the Axis defeat on the ground. Likewise, tactical air power assisted in repelling Axis counterattacks on the beachheads of Sicily and Salerno in Italy. In the winter of 1943–44, tactical air aided the fruitless Allied assaults on the Cassino Line and the defense of the Anzio Beachhead. In the spring of 1944, the U.S. Twelfth Air Force and British First Tactical Air Force began Operation STRANGLE, a campaign designed to interdict German supplies, and in the winter of 1944–45, tactical air operations in Italy followed much the same pattern.

In the European theater, the AAF established the Ninth (Tactical) Air Force in October 1943 in Great Britain under the command of Lieut. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton. By June 1944, it had become the most powerful tactical air force in World War II. Initially, Ninth Air Force fighters flew escort for strategic bomber aircraft attacking into Germany. As the needs of the Anglo‐American invasion forces increased the Ninth gradually switched its emphasis to air/ground training and to an attritional air attack on the Belgian and French transportation systems. The Allied high command expected the transportation plan to hinder the post‐invasion movement of German reinforcements and logistics to oppose the beachhead. On the day of the landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944, the Ninths' medium bombers struck invasion beaches, its fighters supplied air cover, and its troop transports delivered the bulk of the Allied parachute forces. Allied fighter bombers made daylight movement by German ground forces almost impossible and entirely thwarted German air force tactical operations. After assisting in the breakout at St. Lô on 25 June 1944, the Ninth worked closely with the U.S. Twelfth Army Group assigning a Tactical Air Command to each of its armies; AAF pilots literally rode in the turrets of the most advanced American armored spearheads in order to call upon tactical air power when needed. With the invasion of southern France on 25 August 1944, the AAF established the First Provisional Air Force to assist the Sixth Army Group. In the winter of 1944–45, Germany purposely launched their Ardennes counteroffensive in poor flying weather in hopes of negating Allied air power. This ploy ultimately failed and tactical air pushed back the Germans and then assisted the Allied drive into Germany in the spring.

U.S. Strategic Air Operations in Europe.

On and increasing scale from mid‐1942 through May 1945, U.S. strategic air contributed to the defeat of Germany. Along with the British strategic effort, U.S. bombing constituted a second or third front against the enemy. In a significant diversion of strength and resources, Germany was forced to disperse its aircraft and ball bearing industries, devote two million troops to air defenses, skew aircraft production toward interceptors, and divert high velocity artillery and vital communications equipment to home defense. This drain increased throughout the conflict, constituting a significant, if somewhat intangible, achievement of strategic bombing.

Responding to a promise to British prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. strategic air operations began on 4 July 1942, with a raid of six U.S. Eighth Air Force light bombers on Dutch airfields. The Eighth's first heavy bomber raid of twelve B‐17s hit marshalling yards at Rouen, France on 17 August 1942. The raid came after pressure from AAF headquarters in Washington and criticism of American methods in the British press. On 27 January 1943, fifty‐five aircraft made the first American air attack on Germany—the naval base at Wilhelmshaven. Once again, the attack followed promises made to Churchill and the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Throughout the war, U.S. strategic air power would be the focus of intense political, diplomatic, military, and bureaucratic pressures.

Pre‐war plans specified that the U.S. air force in Britain would be the AAF's largest overseas contingent and gave it the task of conducting an offensive against the German war economy. However, shifting priorities (such as the invasion of North Africa) slowed the rate of the Eighth's growth. By the second Schweinfurt Raid of 14 October 1943, the Eighth had failed to gain air superiority over Germany. Its short‐ranged fighters could not accompany the bombers deep into Germany, where the bombers suffered crushing losses, while the European weather allowed only a slow rate of operations. Wartime crew training could not produce sufficient personnel capable of duplicating pre‐war bombing accuracies. The Eighth had inflicted no permanent damage to the German war effort.

By the end of February 1944, however, the Eighth's fortunes reversed. In November 1943, the Eighth introduced the H2X radar bombing device, which permitted the bombing of large targets through clouds and, consequently, allowed an increase in attacks. Long‐range escort fighters, P‐51s, P‐38s, and P‐47s with drop tanks arrived in large numbers, while a change in tactics, instigated by the Eighth's new commander. Lieut. Gen. James H. Doolittle, required American fighters to attack German aircraft rather than passively protect bombers. Constant combat increased the attrition of German pilots to catastrophic levels. In addition, an influx of new bomb groups almost doubled the Eighth's bomblift, and the creation in Italy of a new U.S. strategic air force, the Fifteenth, opened new areas to attack and spread German air defenses.

Just as the Eighth gained air superiority over Germany, a dispute arose in London as to how strategic air could best aid the coming invasion of France. Lieut. Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, commander of the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces, wished to attack the German synthetic oil industry, while Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's air commanders favored an attritional attack on the French and Belgian rail systems. Eisenhower chose transportation bombing, but allowed two oil attacks in May 1944. The success of those attacks, confirmed by Allied code breakers, made oil the first priority air target in the month before the invasion. Both tactical and strategic air power mangled the French railways, but strategic air power's chief contribution to the Normandy landings was the elimination of the German day fighter force. From landing to breakout, the invasion never encountered significant air opposition.

For the remainder of the war, synthetic oil was the primary U.S. strategic target. By September 1944, bombing temporarily halted production entirely. The oil campaign, which deprived the German air force of flight and training time, severely hampered the mobility of ground forces, and even limited fuel to the U‐boats, was the finest achievement of U.S. strategic bombardment. It destroyed a vital, compact, target system with minimal damage to the civilian population. However, the harsh weather of the winter of 1944–45 rendered the refineries safe even to the H2X. Consequently, the Eighth devoted the majority of its effort to hitting the German rail system, especially after the German Ardennes counteroffensive. The key components of the rail system, marshalling yards, were physically located in the midst of German urban areas. Given the inaccuracy of bombing in severely overcast conditions, rail yard bombing meant that many bombs would fall among the civilian population. The Eighth further increased destruction by employing large numbers of incendiary bombs in rail yard raids. At the end of January 1945, at Churchill's urging, the Allied strategic bombing effort began an offensive against eastern Germany to aid Soviet ground forces and demonstrate Allied solidarity. Strategic raids on Berlin and other cities followed, including the RAF's controversial attack on Dresden on 13 and 14 February. The Eighth bombed the center of the city on 15 February. Ironically, the transportation bombing achieved its aim. By the end of February 1945, it had ruined the rail system, shattering Germany's ability to sustain its war economy.
[See also Air Force, U.S.: Predecessors of, 1907 to 1946; Air Warfare Strategy; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


Stephen McFarland and and Wesley Newton . To Command the Sky: The Battle for Air Superiority over Germany, 1942–1944, 1991.
Conrad Crane , Bombs, Cities, and Civilians: American Airpower Strategy in World War II, 1993.
Thomas A. Hughes , Overlord: General Pete Quesada and the Tactical Air Power in World War II, 1995.

Richard G. Davis

World War II, U.S. Air Operations in: The Air War in Japan

views updated May 29 2018

World War II, U.S. Air Operations in: The Air War in Japan. On 18 April 1942, sixteen B‐25 bombers under the command of Army Lt. Col. James Doolittle took off from U.S. Navy aircraft carriers 650 miles off the coast of Japan. Their raid on Tokyo and other Japanese cities caused little material effect but a significant psychological one, boosting American morale while embarrassing Japanese leaders into accelerating operations that would lead to the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway later that year. But it would be more than two years before new American bomber aircraft returned to hit the Japanese home islands again.

In 1944–45, long‐range B‐29 Superfortresses were used to carry out the strategic air campaign against Japan. Eventually, over 1,000 were deployed in the 20th Air Force, subdivided into the XXth and XXIst Bomber Commands. The Army Air Forces (AAF) commanding general, H. H. “Hap” Arnold, retained direct command of the 20th Air Force, to prevent diversion of its resources to theater commanders. Feeling pressure to get results from his expensive Very Heavy Bomber (VHB) project, he fielded the new B‐29s even before testing had been completed, gambling that they could achieve decisive results while correcting any technical deficiencies.

In June 1944, B‐29s from Maj. Gen. Kenneth Wolfe's XXth Bomber Command staged from India to China, and began bombing Japan as part of Operation Matterhorn. Wolfe was plagued by logistics and mechanical problems, however, which grew worse when Japanese ground troops in Operation Ichigo overran advanced U.S. airfields in China. Arnold relieved Wolfe and brought in Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, the AAF's premier problem solver and the most innovative air commander of World War II. However, except for a successful incendiary raid on Hankow, even LeMay achieved poor results with Matterhorn.

Arnold's greatest hopes for victory through airpower over Japan rested with the XXIst Bomber Command, under the command of Brig. Gen. Haywood“Possum” Hansell, which began operations from the Marianas in November 1944. Hansell was one of the architects of precision‐bombing doctrine, but his operations also had little success. Poor facilities, faulty training, aircraft engine failures, cloud cover, and jet stream winds at bombing altitudes made precision methods impossible. Hansell seemed unwilling to change his tactics, and Arnold feared that he would lose control of the heavy bombers to Asian theater commanders Douglas MacArthur, Chester Nimitz, or Louis Mountbatten without better results. Arnold decided to consolidate both Bomber Commands in the Marianas under LeMay and relieved Hansell.

LeMay instituted new training and maintenance procedures but still failed to achieve useful results with daylight high‐altitude precision attacks. So he resorted to low‐level incendiary raids at night. Although area firebombing went against dominant American Army Air Forces doctrine, flying at low altitude reduced engine strain, required less fuel, improved bombing concentration, avoided high winds, and took advantage of weaknesses in Japanese defenses. LeMay's systems analysts predicted that he could set large enough fires to leap firebreaks around important industrial objectives. His first application of the new tactics, Operation Meetinghouse on the night of 9 March 1945, resulted in extraordinary destruction: 334 B‐29s incinerated 16 square miles of Tokyo, destroying 22 key targets and killing 80,000–90,000 civilians in the deadliest air raid of the war.

Once enough incendiaries were stockpiled, the fire raids began in earnest. Warning leaflets were also dropped; their primary purpose was to terrorize Japanese civilians into fleeing from cities. Eight million did so. When Gen. Carl A. Spaatz arrived in July 1945 to take command of Army Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific (including the 20th Air Force and Doolittle's 8th Air Force redeploying from Europe) and to coordinate air operations supporting the invasion of Japan, he was directed to shift the air campaign from cities to transportation. But there was too much momentum behind the fire raids—sustained by operational tempo, training programs, and bomb stocks—for strategy to change.

By the time Spaatz arrived, naval carrier strikes were also hitting key industrial objectives in Japan. More important, the navy's submarine blockade had crippled the Japanese economy, and the Russians were about to attack Manchuria. Spaatz maintained direct command over the 509th Composite Group of B‐29s specially modified to carry atomic bombs. Directed by Washington to deliver these weapons as soon as possible after 3 August, Spaatz ordered the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Along with the incendiary campaign, these different elements composed the series of blows that produced immediate Japanese surrender.

As with the atomic bomb, there is still debate over the effects and morality of the fire raids. LeMay's bombers burned out 180 square miles of 67 cities, killed at least 300,000 people, and injured over 400,000 more. His 313th Bomb Wing also sowed 12,000 naval mines in ports and waterways, sinking almost 1 million tons of shipping in about four months. LeMay remained convinced that his conventional bombing could have achieved victory by itself, without need for a ground invasion of the Japanese or the atomic bombs. He even briefed Arnold and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in July 1945 that the war would have to end by 1 October, when the 20th Air Force would run out of targets.
[See also Air Force, U.S.: Predecessors of, 1907–46; Bombing of Civilians; China‐Burma‐India Theater; Strategy: Air Warfare Strategy; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


Wesley Frank Craven and and James Lea Cate , The Army Air Forces in World War II. Vol. 5: The Pacific: Matterhorn to Nagasaki, June 1944 to August 1945, 1953.
Carroll V. Glines , Doolittle's Tokyo Raiders, 1964.
Curtis LeMay with and MacKinley Kantor , Mission with LeMay, 1965.
Haywood S. Hansell, Jr. , Strategic Air War Against Japan, 1980.
Conrad C. Crane , Bombs, Cities, and Civilians: American Airpower Strategy in World War II, 1993.
Kenneth P. Werrell , Blankets of Fire: U.S. Bombers Over Japan During World War II, 1996.

Conrad C. Crane

Korean War, U.S. Air Operations in the

views updated Jun 27 2018

Korean War, U.S. Air Operations in the. Aerial operations controlled and conducted by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) played a major part in the prosecution of the Korean War by the United Nations Command. These operations fell into several categories: the campaign to gain and retain aerial superiority over the North Korean and later the Chinese Communist air forces; the bombing campaign against military and industrial targets in North Korea; close air support to the ground forces of the United Nations; airlift operations, both intratheater and intertheater; coordination of air assets provided not only by the USAF but the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps and a half dozen other UN air forces. In addition, there were many other duties, such as search and rescue operations, aeromedical evacuation, aerial reconnaissance, and air defense operations over the Korean peninsula and Japan.

The Far East Air Force (FEAF) controlled and coordinated all operations from its headquarters in Japan through four subordinate commands: the Fifth Air Force (responsible for close air support, interdiction, and reconnaissance); Bomber Command (responsible for strategic bombing); Combat Cargo Command; and the Japan Air Defense Force. In practice, however, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps were semi‐autonomous in their air operations.

During the opening weeks of the war in July and August 1950, the close air support provided by the FEAF was often responsible for the survival of the ground forces, and throughout the war, it was often the decisive factor in ground combat. This critical support came at a price, however. The USAF had considered close air support obsolescent after World War II and had virtually abandoned it, closing down the Tactical Air Command responsible for the mission. As a result, the FEAF had neither equipment nor trained personnel, and had to resort to inappropriate aircraft, including strategic bombers and high‐speed jet aircraft, for bombing missions supporting ground forces. Friendly fire casualties were common among ground troops. The Marine Corps, by contrast, had emphasized close air support in the postwar years, and its pilots were trained and had the planes to deliver accurate ordnance in support of ground troops. Throughout the war, Marine aircraft were the supporting weapon of choice among ground troops of all services.

The Korean War occurred as all air forces were making the transition from propeller‐driven craft to jets. The Chinese forces had the best jet fighter early in the war in the Soviet‐supplied MiG‐15, until the USAF F‐86 Sabrejet arrived, late in 1950. The Sabrejets quickly became the “MiG killers”; by the end of the war, FEAF had downed more than 950 enemy aircraft, while losing only 147 in air‐to‐air combat.

The Strategic Bombing Survey ordered after World War II had convinced aerial planners that it was critical to concentrate on one key component of an opponent's assets for victory in a bombing campaign. In the little‐industrialized country of North Korea, such strategic targets were sparse; FEAF settled on the electrical power grid—particularly the large dams that generated hydroelectric power near the Chinese border—and in the waning months of the war on agricultural irrigation dams. Both campaigns were largely successful in achieving their goals of destruction, but their effect on shortening the war is debatable.

The political aim of avoiding a wider war prohibited bombing outside North Korea's borders. This provided a sanctuary for enemy aircraft in Manchuria, a bitter frustration for U.S. airmen throughout the war. Often forgotten, however, is that by tacit agreement Chinese aircraft did not bomb FEAF bases in Japan or South Korea, providing the United Nations a sanctuary as well.

Airpower achieved several important innovations during the Korean War. Delivery of personnel and supplies was much improved, particularly using the C‐119 “Flying Boxcar.” Given the primitive road network on the Korean peninsula, delivery by parachute was often the only way of getting supplies to isolated areas. Parachute delivery of bombs allowed bombers to fly much lower and to drop with far greater accuracy on such targets as bridges.

Helicopter operations became routine, foreshadowing their role in the Vietnam War. Helicopters were used for search and rescue of downed aviators on land and sea; for medical evacuation from the battlefield; for tactical reconnaissance and staff transport; and, to a limited degree, for moving troops on the battlefield.

In the aftermath of the war, advocates of airpower maintained an exaggerated primacy for aerial weapons in bringing it to a close, not unlike the arguments that would be used after the Persian Gulf War.
[See also Bomber Aircraft; Bombs; Fighter Aircraft; Korean War; Korean War: U.S. Air Operations in the; Strategy: Air Warfare Strategy; Tactics: Air Warfare Tactics.]


Robert F. Futrell , The United States Air Force in Korea 1950–1953, 1983.
Richard P. Hallion , The Naval Air War in Korea, 1986.

Kenneth E. Hamburger

World War I, U.S. Air Operations in

views updated May 14 2018

World War I, U.S. Air Operations in. The U.S. declaration of war on April 6, 1917, found American aviation in an embryonic and woefully unprepared state. The army air service had some 1,400 officers and men; naval aviation, 300.

America's first operational unit in Europe, a naval air detachment, began flying seaplane escort for French coastal convoys in September. The first army flight candidate landed in France in June 1917, while those arriving in Italy in the fall included New York congressman Fiorello La Guardia.

In France the command of the embryonic U.S. Air Service remained in flux into 1918, as frontline commander Col. William “Billy” Mitchell emerged as the key leader. Mitchell determined to undertake a tactical aerial offensive on the Western Front with an air arm of new recruits from America and a nucleus of veterans from the Lafayette Escadrille and Lafayette Flying Corps, who had flown with the French since the battle of Verdun in 1916.

U.S. units entered action in the quiet sector around Toul in the spring, and in early June thirteen squadrons joined the struggle over Chateau‐Thierry during the Aisne‐Marne offensive.

When the First Army AEF attacked the St. Mihiel salient on September 12 to 16, Billy Mitchell commanded 1,481 airplanes, the largest wartime concentration of Allied air forces, nearly half of which were American. Despite poor weather conditions, this overwhelming mass seized aerial control as fighters penetrated over German airfields and day bombers struck targets on the battlefield and in the rear. St. Mihiel also marked the meteoric ascent of balloon‐busting ace Frank Luke, who shot down 18 Germans in 17 days before meeting his death. The impetuous Luke won the Medal of Honor, as would American ace of aces Eddie Rickenbacker, who ultimately gained 26 victories and survived the war.

In the climactic Meuse‐Argonne Offensive from September 26 to the end of October, Mitchell successfully continued his massed offensive tactics. By the Armistice the intensive fighting combined with supply problems to reduce the air service to 45 squadrons with 457 serviceable airplanes, nearly two hundred fewer aircraft than in September. Yet the air service had grown to 195,024 officers and men by war's end. More than 2,000 American flight personnel had reached the front. 681 aviators died, 75 percent of them in accidents and 25 percent in combat.

By October 1918 the navy had some 900 seaplanes for convoy duties, 400 of which were stationed abroad at 27 U.S. naval air stations from Ireland to Italy. A few naval aviators flew bombers from Calais‐Dunkirk, while army aviators in Italy manned bomber units there.

American industry delivered Curtiss flying boats, the standardized Liberty engine, and copies of the British DH4 bomber to American combat units. Yet inadequate overall aviation production necessitated American reliance primarily on allied aerial equipment. The U.S. Air Service's significance lay in its support of the army through reconnaissance and attacks on enemy troops and supplies at and behind the front, while fighter aviation protected observation and bomber craft, engaged in ground attack, and provided the public with heroic aces.
[See also Air Force, U.S.: Predecessors of, 1907 to 1946; Strategy: Air Warfare Strategy; World War I (1914–1918): Military and Diplomatic Course.]


James J. Hudson , Hostile Skies: A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I, 1968.
Adrian O. Van Wyen , Naval Aviation in World War I, 1969.

John H. Morrow, Jr.

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United States Air Operations